Decomposing Work Items

One of the early conversations I have with most teams I work with is about decomposition. There is often just a high level of variation in size, complexity, and other aspects of work in progress. This makes it hard to project when things will complete, when we will be able to get to new things, and how much of in-progress work was essential vs. deferrable.

From its introduction, I have used Richard Lawrence's excellent How to Split a User Story flowchart. I keep recommending it because I have found few better resources.

The flowchart guides you through splitting work items into smaller items, with the emphasis on those items remaining valuable on their own.

Agile Roots

This flow chart was created in the context of Scrum and Agile teams and a little bit of the terminology may be unfamiliar to those who are not well versed in those areas. You will see terms like Story and velocity that may require some translation. If I could change one thing I would genericize some of that language. But don't let that stop you from getting value from this chart.

StoryShort for User Story originating in agile disciplines, but could be a Work Item, issue, idea, or other placeholder of desired value
velocityAnother Agile term similar to throughput, or how much value (released work) is created in a given period of time


Making Items Smaller

Most people will find section two easy to pick up and starting to apply right away. Say you have a ticket someone has added and you want to make sure things that are planned and worked on are kept small and are able to flow. The questions on the chart easily help identify dimensions for splitting based on performance, workflow, steps, etc.

Readiness Check

The above decomposition makes some assumptions that the work item was already in pretty good shape and assumes you want to find smaller pieces for iteration/feedback or that some parts will deliver value more quickly.

Section one, however, attempts to help ensure it is a well formed work item in the first place. Included is a check on INVEST Criteria, which are and excellent set of criteria for work items and should be explored if you aren't familiar with these already. In addition is a reminder to check the relatibe size of the story compared to the amount of work that normally gets completed.

As an example of the size check, let's say your throughtput (one possible substitute for velocity) is 5 items per week. If a new candidate item feels like it is as bigger than 2 of those items put together, you probably want to look at splitting it as it represents a significant chunk of your weekly work tied up in one thing.

Follow Up Check

Section three is mainly a reminder to step back after doing any splitting and make sure the results still meet criteria like INVEST and can't be decomposed further. Once you are familiar with following this flowchart, you will be surprised how quickly you can apply these checks and happy with the positive impact on your planning.

Published: 2019-02-16

Tags: managing work